Fighting Florida's School-to-Prison Pipeline

AP Images/Phil Sears

Last week, Donnell Regusters heard from a co-worker that dozens of young people were occupying the Florida Capitol, rallying around the Trayvon Martin verdict, calling for the repeal of the state’s stand-your-ground law, and demanding an end to what reformers call the “school-to-prison pipeline,” so he decided to head South. “It wasn’t even up for debate,” he says. Regusters, an organizer working to reduce suspensions and school-based arrests in Philadelphia, got together a group of young Philly residents, hopped on a bus, and went down the East Coast, picking up students in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., along the way. The night after Regusters’s crew joined the protest, then going into its tenth day, national news coverage heated up: Singer and civil-rights activist Harry Belafonte, a funder of civil-rights actions in the 1960s, made an appearance in Tallahassee. Seeing Belafonte speak in person, Regusters says, “was insanely powerful.”

That Friday evening, during an MSNBC interview featuring Belafonte, Chris Hayes asked one of the protest’s leaders what he thought was at “the frontier” of the contemporary civil-rights movement. “I really think it’s around our criminalization of young people,” said Phillip Agnew, bearded, wearing glasses and a black hat emblazoned with white letters that read: POWER. “Young black, young brown, young poor, young people with a lack of opportunity,” he said. “I see the frontier, the defining moment of our generation … to fight back against any … set of laws that continue to criminalize our youth, funnel them out of educational systems and situations and into prisons.”

Agnew, executive director of the Florida civil-rights group Dream Defenders, spoke for scores of students, parents, educators, administrators, and activists when he identified ending the school-to-prison pipeline as a top priority. Although the protesters in Tallahassee, now entering their 14th day, are getting press for challenging the state’s stand-your-ground law—they say they won’t leave until Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, convenes a special legislative session to discuss the controversial policyNancy Trevino, of the grassroots student group Power U based out of Miami, says ending the school-to-prison pipeline is central to the protest. That’s why Power U brought a small group of kids to the state capitol two weeks ago and why Regusters’s crew made the trip.

“If one of the demands is to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, the experts, which are the youth, should be speaking about it,” Trevino says.

The term “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to a set of circumstances that lead to a large number of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, especially of black students, for mostly minor offenses in schools across the country. In many schools, punishable offenses include truancy or “honor” or “status” violations, such as being noisy in class or talking back to a teacher. A 2011 study of Texas public schools found that 97 percent of suspended students were not required to be punished under state code, meaning their exclusions from school were discretionary, and that black and Latino children were more likely than whites to receive harsh punishments for similar infractions. Statistics for the 2009-2010 school year from the Department of Education show that black students nationwide, especially boys, are far more likely to be suspended than white students. When students are out of school, activists say they’re more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system or be arrested. In an analysis of 2012 data from Chicago public schools, black students made up 76 percent of around 4,300 total school-based arrests despite constituting about 42 percent of the student population, with 84 percent of those arrests for misdemeanors.

Florida has an active school-to-prison pipeline. The state led the nation in school-based arrests or referrals to law enforcement during the 2011-2012 school year, with close to 13,900, and continues to lead in reported school-based arrests. In Miami-Dade public schools, nearly 23,300 students were suspended out of school during the 2009 year, according to Department of Education data, with 49 percent of those suspensions going to black students, who made up only a quarter of total enrollment. At Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in Miami, the school Trayvon Martin was attending but was suspended from (for possessing a baggie containing marijuana residue) when he died, Department of Education data show there were 200 suspensions in 2009, with 40 percent doled out to black students, slightly more than their 35 percent of the school’s enrollment.

The fact that Martin had attended a high school in Miami struck a chord with the students Power U brought to the capitol.

“I wanted to support Trayvon Martin, and, second, I want to stop black kids from getting into jail or prison,” says Jamya Peeples, an incoming fifth-grader at Holmes Elementary in Miami. Jarrel Strong, a recent graduate of Miami Carol City High School, says he supports what are known as restorative-justice policies, characterized by rehabilitation and empathy for rule breakers rather than harsh punishment and designed to reduce exclusions and serious crime. Restorative-justice policies have been put into place in several schools in Pennsylvania, after which suspensions and violent behavior generally fell quickly, and at the once notoriously rough Ralph J. Bunche Academy in Oakland, where suspensions were more than halved in one year.

To implement those ideas in other schools may not be easy, since, in some districts, factors that perpetuate high suspension and arrest rates are entrenched. Some teachers and administrators say that without the ability to remove disruptive children from the classroom, classes could become unmanageable; juvenile-justice expert Barry Feld says that No Child Left Behind “gives schools a financial incentive to get rid of their underperforming kids,” since staff at schools with low test scores can be fired. In addition, many schools, 40 percent during the 2007-2008 school year, have officers stationed inside them, and a regular police presence can lead to more arrests for minor crimes. Federal funds for officers and parents’ desire for a safe school can make it hard to remove officers, even though “there is no evidence that placing officers in the schools improves safety,” according to Denise C. Gottfredson, a University of Maryland criminologist, quoted in The New York Times earlier this year.

For his part, Strong has been arguing for restorative-justice policies since he was in fourth grade. He now visits the school board with other Power U members on a regular basis. He’s not giving up. Just like members of Donnell Regusters’s Youth United for Change in Philadelphia and the young people he brought from Baltimore’s Algebra Project and D.C.’s Black Youth Project, Power U members say they’ll advocate until policies are changed in Miami. After that, they’ll bring their case for reform to the statehouse, armed with stories and data.

For many activists, motivation comes from contact their friends or community members had with the school-to-prison pipeline while they were in school—or their own experiences. Strong was suspended for fighting in fifth grade. When he was out of school, he spent the whole day riding the free Metromover train in Miami, hungry, because he didn’t want his mom to know he’d been sent home. He says he doesn’t want that to happen to other students. “I wanted to be in school, I wanted to get the lunch, I wanted to talk, I wanted to make friends, I wanted to go to P.E., I wanted to go to art, and I just had to sit on the train.” That’s why at the capitol last week, “we were singing, crying our hearts out. We were just emotional. But we really want to change.”

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